Personalized Search: Kind of a Big Deal


It was another big week at the Googleplex. (This opener is starting to feel like the Friday roundup equivalent of "Once upon a time.") The "search giant" made about a jillion announcements—I think Google has decided to mimic Bing's ever-changing homepage image by adding a new feature every day. (Ooh, fade-in buttons! But why!)

Some of these announcements had real implications for search marketers—particularly integration of real-time search and the launch of "universal personalized search," which means, in effect, there's no "real" ranking, no official SERP; like Google's homepage of late, it's always different. (Of course, one could argue that with geo and time data incorporated it was always different anyway …)

The search community is divided on the significance of personalized search. Danny Sullivan thinks the news has been hugely underplayed. In a post subtitled "The 'New Normal' that Deserves Extraordinary Attention," he writes: "Google made the biggest change that has ever happened in search engines, and the world largely yawned." Self ranking checks, he argues, are now meaningless:

Happy that you're ranking in the top results for a term that's important to you? Look again. Turn off personalized search, and you might discover that your top billing is due to the way the personalized system is a huge ego search reinforcement tool. If you visit your own site often, your own site ranks better in your own results — but not for everyone else.

Even if you're ranking well in the non-personalized results, most Google users will be using personalized search now, without even realizing it (the average Googler doesn't follow Matt Cutts on Twitter), and you may not rank well for them.

Danny also suggests that Google intentionally timed the announcement so "few would notice." Maybe so: In this post on the official Google blog, they bury it under the announcement that you can now get bigger pictures of Ewoks.

Google buries personalized search news

Meanwhile, some SEOs have not only noticed but are totally freaking out! Over at Search Engine Roundtable, Barry Schwartz rounds up some of the freakouts from the forums: "The possible impact to all is staggering" … "This just feels so very wrong-headed that the mind boggles!"

David Harry, however, in his excellent and thorough "SEO Guide to Personalized Search," urges the throngs to remain calm. He has been running some tests and concludes that SEO isn't dead yet: "Let's not start that funeral procession just yet my friends […] from what we saw, it wasn't the SEO killer that some have feared. It is a far more subtle change and we should not start professing that the game has changed." From what he's seen, this isn't a "wholesale change of SERP results from one user to another." It's mostly just a re-ranking of the results in the top 10, with the top 5 results more likely to remain stable.

(Read Article: Google SEO Guide: The Ultimate Guide)

So maybe it's not such a big deal for SEOs. But what about normal people? (There is no overlap.) Old regular Joe might have privacy concerns—he might not like the idea that Google is watching every time he searches for nude pics or murder tips, and refactoring that data into future searches (even when someone other than Joe is using the family computer). Eric Schmidt's now notorious response to such concerns: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Well that came out pretty douchey-sounding, but I think he has a point when he adds: "if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time. And [...] we're all subject, in the US, to the Patriot Act, and it is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities." This is true with or without personalized search. In other words, if you want privacy stay off the internets.

Over at Outspoken Media, Lisa Barone (who isn't freaking out so much as making her usual bold accusations) names both real-time and personalized search as evidence of Google's ever-increasing tendency toward "hostage-taking." Yesterday, in fact, Ken discovered that Google had usurped our #1 spot for our own brand search, for the love of god, with scrolling "real-time" results—largely irrelevant tweets—pushing our own website to #2! This essentially makes corporate spam the only alternative to random third-party spam and reputation management nightmares.

WTF happened to imeem?!!

Lisa also called the recent purchase of imeem by MySpace Music an incident of hostage taking—longtime users of the streaming music and social networking service were caught by surprise when the imeem site suddenly redirected to MySpace, and they found they had no access to their account or playlists. The result? A lot of very angry ex-users. Adventures in real-time search: Watch the Twitter search results for "imeem" to see bitterness, confusion, ire and despair directed at both companies for mishandling the transition. The developer community—many had incorporated the imeem API into other applications—is also angry that they weren't informed.

I've been following this acquisition with interest; though I never used imeem (I occasionally use Pandora, but I can't really concentrate on writing while listening to music), I'm familiar with the company because it was founded by a friend of mine from high school. It had a large and loyal user base, but was struggling to stay viable under crippling licensing costs, flagging ad revenue and impending lawsuits. Imeem is turning out to be a fascinating case study for new media: reputation management, clashing distribution models, and the complications involved in monetizing "free." Twitter et al take note: Get a real business model. In a cutthroat world, having millions of devoted users won't necessarily save your ass.

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Dec 11, 2009

Kudos to you & Danny Sullivan for finally talking about the change in rankings... especially rank checking software, which could be useless.

Tom Demers
Dec 11, 2009

Hi Tony,
Yeah I think rank checkers will go the way of Compete et al and have to use a blend of stuff like ISP data and other things to get to a rank that is "directionally accurate" but far less actionable than what we have today...should be interesting!

Lisa Thorell
Dec 11, 2009

Great post and wrap-up of the search world's concerns over the recent Google real-time search changes. Personalized search means the days of off-the-cuff quick reality tests on the google bar of the "typical user experience" of a specific search query are pretty much blasted away now. Sigh...

Elisa Gabbert
Dec 11, 2009

Thanks, Lisa! I agree and I'll miss the satisfaction of checking for a page and thinking I'm #1 ...

Dec 11, 2009

Google's Personalized Search and the Grocery Store

Google's recent personalized search is fascinating. Something has fundamentally changed for 2/3 of all Internet users: the position of Google results on a search have been altered slightly, for the user.

The closest analogy I can think of is product placement at the grocery store. Boxed cereals would be a good example.

The consumer doesn't care much where all the cereals are placed: top shelf, middle shelf, bottom shelf, end of the aisle display, etc. Personally, I just care that I can find my Honey Nut Cheerios and my Shredded Wheat.

But the vendors of all the cereals care very much about whether Wheaties are 7 feet high on a shelf or whether Frosted Flakes are at the eye level of a 4 year old. Vendors pay for special product placement (PPC?)in the grocery store and there's even software that keeps track of where foods are stored on shelves, and the resulting sales of that food. (Shelf location of Cheerios in grocery stores for that zip code can be correlated to Cheerio sales via bar codes.)

So the grocery store owners are careful to not move the boxed cereals where car products were once sold. But grocery store owners will alter boxed cereal placement to please their own "algorithms" of whether people like the convenience or whether vendors will pay for premium locations in boxed cereal food sections.

So consumers are normally unaware of finite changes in boxed cereals from shelf #3 to Shelf #2 in a grocery store. But since vendors visit the store to see where their products are displayed, they are concerned.

And when vendors visit a store and find that a prominent display of cereal has been moved from one shelf to another, they want to know why. I'm sure the grocery store owners don't use the phrase "boxed cereals display algorithm" but they could.

And Google can do this because they're the biggest grocery store in the universe for products, services, and words. The user/customer may have a better experience because of Google but he or she will never know. But the vendors of Internet products and services are just wishing the grocery store owner had left the arrangement of boxed cereals on the shelf the way they were yesterday.

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